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The Jewish Messiahs (Oxford University Press, 2001)

Neither a messiah nor his followers nor their opponents can be unaware of the predictable outcome of a messiah event.

By Harris Lenowitz
Professor, Department of Languages & Literature,
Hebrew Language
University of Utah

    From the first century BCE to the present, several dozens of Jewish messiahs have appeared. While each event has its own circumstances, the appearances and their accounts occur with some frequency in communities throughout the Jewish world. Therefore, it is of interest to note the significant features each event and each account share with others, as well as the features peculiar to each: the personae; the economic and social contingencies, including those of religion, peculiar to the events; and the tropes and plot structures peculiar to the accounts.

    The term “messiah,” as it is assumed by a particular human being in an event, and the term “messianism,” which refers to the collection of ideational literature that propounds and argues theologies concerning such terms as the messianic age and the messiah, interact. The latter de-emphasizes messiah accounts, though elements from messiah events may be brought to bear on its theorizing; messiah accounts de-emphasize the theologies, though motifs from that literature may appear in them.

    The period of time between the assumption of the title "messiah" to the death of the claimant may be termed the "messiah event." (Some of the messiahs abandon the role before their deaths.) A messiah sometimes takes that title actively and sometimes allows others to apply it; sometimes, a messiah denies the title or seems ambivalent about its application, but that is tantamount to taking the title. Such an act mirrors the relationship between the account and the messiah. The absence of any account of a messiah determines that there really is no messiah to be accounted, while the denial that one is the messiah constitutes a self-account of the sort of messiah one is. "Messiah events" have only rarely made a significant impact on Jewish, not to say world, history; fewer than a half-dozen may be thought of as having done so. The accounts have been more important, and still their number and impact have been slight, though one or two have resulted in colossal shockwaves still traveling through the great ocean of western humanity.

    Since the term "messiah" is taken as common to the events and the accounts, some theoretical background to the application of the term should be established as a reference point. The word is, for all practical purposes, used in our sense first in biblical Hebrew. The meaning of the root consonants, mem-shin-het, corresponds to English "anoint;" of the vowel pattern, a-e/i , status or passivity, thus, "anointed one/thing" (pl., cf. Ps. 105.16; appl. to non-Israelites, cf. Isa. 45.1 and 44.28). Things as well as humans are anointed, have oil poured over them, in the Hebrew Bible. The performance of anointment confers a peculiar status on its object: one associated with the state religion(s). Patriarchs and priests anoint things/places; prophets anoint prophets, priests, and kings; priests anoint priests and kings. A sort of history might be constructed of this array—since objects and places cannot anoint others—that points to the prophet as the primordial agent of the anointment of humans. The only account we have of a prophet ordaining another prophet is a suggestive one, lacking the distinctive feature of anointment itself as well as other features that comprise the performance elsewhere.

    Still, no one other than a prophet and God creates prophets. Anointing ultimately comes to replace Elijah/Elisha’s symbolic acts, combining elements of different traditions concerning the intercourse of Heaven and Earth. If the act of anointing performs the transference of divinity, it is not unreasonable that its agent might occupy a marginal status, one that is typified as neither active nor passive, neither a single-purpose agent of the divine like the malakh nor one with a fixed socio-political status. The beclouding and obscurity of the tale of Elisha’s anointment as prophet gives some vague substance, a correlative, to the hypothesized history of the development of human anointment. The motif of the splitting of the waters that appears in the account of Elisha’s succession in 2 Kings 2 is present; it appears as well in the circumstances that lead to the chartering account of all human anointment as Moses, a prophet, anoints Aaron to be priest in Exod. 29. Ultimately, with the loss of the oil of anointment itself in the destruction of the Temple in the eighth century, the application of the term mashiah that identifies its bearer—in particular David and his lineage, also lost in the destruction—as an associate of the divine is sufficient in itself.

    The absence of what might be thought critical elements in the establishment of an individual in the role of messiah serves to typify the nature of messiah accounts. Those who construct pro- and anti-accounts are free to find and choose, subdue and elevate elements associated in biblical and later literature as well as in the messiah events themselves as it suits them. Biblical and post-biblical rabbinic literature remain motif and plot sources throughout this long history. The Zohar literature, including its later interpreters, becomes particularly important from the 14th century on. And if the earliest accounts have, as it appears, innovated elements, then that opportunity is available to later accountants too. It may be that contemporary proponents and opponents of a particular messiah, those engaged in a messiah event and creating the primary accounts, work under more severe restraints in their selection and construction of themes and images than do those who create the later—secondary—accounts. It is in the selection and innovation of the materials and in the construction of these two sorts of accounts that we learn about the interests of the accountants and of their audiences; and it is equally obvious that the most interesting of these accountants should be the messiah himself—or the anti-Christ, whose ability to discern and construct the interests of his adherents is critical to the success of his event cum account.

    The major continuity in the accounts, and perhaps in the events themselves, from time-to-time and culture-to-culture relates to the meaning of the events depicted. Rescue from subjection to an imposing culture within which the Jewish communities are entrapped is never achieved. This is the overarching theme from the first messiah events of the century preceding the messiah Jesus of Nazareth to the latest event, that of the messiah Rebbe Menahem Mendel Schneersohn of Crown Heights in New York City. In the events themselves, the messiah is almost invariably held in prison for some time and, not infrequently, the accounts represent him as escaping from his bonds and captors. Sometimes the escape is a fantasy: release through death or simply disappearance, occultation. Certain details in the accounts—promises of eternal youth, freedom from illness, etc., a "new heaven over a new earth"—symbolize just how unattainable the political and economic liberation actually is and indicate that the events themselves possess primarily symbolic meaning. Neither a messiah nor his followers nor their opponents can be unaware of the predictable outcome of an event. Each party takes its ideas and images from preceding accounts of messiah events each and every one of which failed to achieve the objectives that presumably stand behind such symbols. The alteration of identity, on the other hand, is attained in the events, for the Jewish participants—protagonists and antagonists—and for the oppressing culture and its members. Here we have a common plot which makes it possible to note variations in its constitutive elements in each instantiation: acts, personae, and motifs.

    The varieties of media constituting the accounts multiply over time. The literary remains of oral primary and secondary accounts are all we have from the first century BCE—with the single exception of the Bar Kosiba letters and coins—until we come upon the flag of David Re’uveni and the robe of Shlomo Molkho (see below). We have no autobiographical material from messiahs until we come to the diaristic works of Avraham Abulafia. Re’uveni’s own self-told story together with its financial accounts is lengthy, and although we lack the original ms., something that we do have from Abulafia, a trace of it remains. The literary genres as well as the media from this point forward flourish and ultimately include all the genres and media available in the present moment. The accounts of earlier messiahs may be furnished in new media and new genres as time passes. The many genres and their many media associated with the messiah event of Jesus of Nazareth far exceed those of any other. The integrality of the accounts to the event likewise increases with their temporal proximity to the ongoing event and surges in the diffusion of accounts over longer distances.

    By far the most important, most influential event and account(s) in this long and varied history is that of Jesus of Nazareth. Steady advances have been made in isolating the historical figure and the several accounts. Relying on the approach initiated by Klausner, E.P. Sanders, and Eugene Meier, scholars have situated Jesus in his Jewish and Palestinian context. Some of this has been made possible by the work of textual and literary scholars who have succeeded in identifying lexica and literary structures and collocating them with distinct projects. The best known of these on-going activities is that devoted to the source sayings document Q, but their history descends from the synoptic critics themselves. Among the many noteworthy contributions the event/account makes to later ones are the ambivalent claim to the identity of messiah, the identity’s conquest of mortality, and the re-ordering of identity in a transcendent society, the "kingdom of Heaven." These images together with the symbolic performances that enact them in the messiah drama of Jesus can be seen clearly as they contrast with the same expressions in the case of the account-contemporary, Shim’on bar Kosiba, one who is closer to the model of the messiahs we know about from Josephus, i.e., the model transformed by that of the Jesus accounts. Bar Kosiba seeks not to be known as the messiah, choosing instead to be known as nasi, "highest in rank." Willy-nilly, he is still known, in what seems to be an opponent’s account (Jerusalem Talmud ta’anit 4.68; R. Akiva is said to name him "bar Kokhva" after the messianic reading of Num. 24.17 and is derided by his interlocutor), as the messiah. The tale of Jesus’ annomination as messiah in Mark 8.26-30 itself, like the order he places on the blind man he cures, assures that he will be known as the messiah as well as seeing to it that his design, i.e., to be reported wanting to keep this secret, will also become part of the report. Moreover, whether they spread the whole story or keep it to themselves, the blind man and his audience become witnesses and adherents to his and their identities and are enabled thereby to gain control over them. Likewise, we can compare the theme of the victory of identity over mortality in the tale of Jesus’ resurrection, assumption, and awaited return (the parousia) and compare this with the messiah’s death as bar Kokhba dies, preparing the way for the coming of a second, victorious and immortal messiah in the doctrine of the two messiahs: the messiah of the lineage of Joseph/Ephraim and the messiah of the lineage of David. The promise of immortality extended here is attached to the traditions of tribe and lineage in Israelite history, whereas in the parousia the immortality model is liberated from all that. While the accounts of Jesus reorder social identity in the "kingdom of heaven," those of bar Kosiba require his adherents to live according to all possible religio-legal strictures in their present state, abandoning nothing of the festive regulations, for example, though they are at war.

    From this point until the 16th century, Jewish messiahs appear only outside the Land of Israel, on Cyprus, in the Near East, in southern Europe and North Africa. Though their expressed intentions always include a return to the Land of Israel, the focus of their activities, often militaristic and frequently taking advantage of local unrest, is local as they seek to reinforce the unity and confidence of Jewish communities in domains that lie beyond their traditional religious structures and studies. The events as they are accounted for show the messiahs seeking redress for economic and social discrimination. Miraculous transportation to the Land of Israel is a theme frequently met in the accounts of these messiahs as the new identities they set forth in their programs call for sweeping and unlikely changes in their diasporas, including their economic niches and the other self-expressions denied them by the restrictions of the Code of Umar in its various permutations and, of course, by Christian societies, all focused on social denigration of personal expression in apparel, public conduct, employment and the like. The best known of these events is that of David Alroy, as he is famous from the work of the 12th century traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, from translations of his Travels made during the flourishing of Reformation Christian Hebraism and in the novel by Benjamin Disraeli. Alroy is said to have been a learned student of Jewish law and traditions and of alchemy and magic. When taken prisoner, he miraculously escapes his jail and flees his pursuers, sailing across the river Gozan on his headscarf (turban).

    During this same period, significant developments took place in the theological literature relating to theories of the messiah and the messianic age. (This literature itself is quite antique and continues to develop to the present. From the second century BCE on it provides both topics and images, including discussions of the name of the messiah, the date of his coming, the natural world before and after his coming, the nature of the divine law following his coming. All of these and many more continue to provide materials to messiah events and their accounts.) Maimonides, in particular, engaged the topic of the messiah in several responses to letters of inquiry or reports relating to five events. The letters and his responses constitute accounts. In general, Maimonides takes a position on the question of the moral standards to be applied to the messiahs and also a position on the question of the responsibilities to be exercised by the rabbinic authorities of their communities. In those cases where Maimonides knows something about the conduct of the messiahs, he determines that they can be good people in their conduct in general and helpful, particularly if they call the community’s attention to the correction of misconduct, "reprove them and summon them to repentance.” This corresponds to his new, revised theoretical two-messiah program. If "[the messiah in question] is a king who arises from the house of David, meditates on the Torah, occupies himself with the commandments in accord with the oral and written Torah, and prevails on all Jews to do so and fights the battles of God," he may be considered the messiah. If he succeeds and is prepared to rebuild the Temple on its site and regather the dispersed Jews, then he is assuredly the messiah. This represents the last approach to the problem of the failure of the messiah. There are, once again, some impossible terms involved here, such as Davidic lineage, unevidenced for more than a millennium. Further emphasis on the messiah as mystic is provided somewhat later, also from Iberia, by Avraham Abulafia, who, a messiah himself, brought new relevance to practices of meditation and name and alphabet mysticism.

    The 15th and 16th centuries saw two messiahs encounter each other in the realm of the Inquisition and that of Humanism and the Christian Kabbalah: David Re’uveni and Shlomo Molkho. Re’uveni came to the attention of the west as a figure from the unknown orient, bringing the legends of the Lost Tribes and the mysterious lands of Africa to bear on his mission. Viterbo paid attention to him in the Vatican as did Clemens; the King of Portugal, in Lisbon; Jewish authorities, throughout Western Europe; Charles V, in Regensburg. His proposal was for a military confederacy between the Christian forces and those of his brother in his imaginary exotic homeland, leader of two and half of the Lost Tribes, the purpose of which would be to reclaim the Holy Land from Islam. A Portuguese courtier of Jewish heritage, Diogo Pires, was caught up in the drama, circumcised himself, changed his name to Shlomo Molkho, traveled with Re’uveni and by himself, impressing leading figures—legalists and mystics—with his devotion and miraculous learning. His reputation and the power of his message was temporarily magnified by Charles’ execution of him in the bonfires of the Inquisition, a “holy burnt offering” which the foremost rabbinic authority of the time, R. Yosef Karo, yearned to become.

    Molkho made a strong impression on the two messiahs of Safed in the Galilee: Isaac Luria and his successor Hayim Vital. Though his term (around two and a half years) was abbreviated by his death at 33, Luria’s new phrasing of the kabbalistic myth of the Zohar provided for a cosmic rescue mission to be carried out by the messiah and newly endowed the messiah with the ability to determine the nature of the individual soul and human deeds in the effort. Luria was depicted as uniquely able to peer into these matters and "repair that which is broken" in his community and far beyond that. For the first time—and largely due to his own reticence to write—orally transmitted tales of the messiah’s deeds come to constitute the largest body of account materials. His disciple Hayim Vital inherited his master’s role if not his charisma. Vital investigated the various traditions of alchemy, meditative and supernatural practices as well as those of his master. He sometimes thought of the former set of traditions as his "sin" and, in his spiritual journal, subjected his character and role to incessant, debilitating interrogation. His public reception was equally ambivalent. After this brief period when messiahs actually lived in the Land of Israel, the history of the messiahs never again returns them there from their local habitations in the diaspora.

    The messiah event of the largest scale since that of Jesus took place the following century in the Ottoman Empire and continued until the first decades of the nineteenth century in Bohemia. Its impact was enormous and offshoots sprouted throughout the entire Jewish world as well as in many civil societies. Attention was paid in the world press and by literary figures all over western Europe as the continent’s interest was caught up in what seemed possibly to be a real king of the Jews and Redeemer. Repercussions were felt from India to America. The messiahship of Shabtai Zvi, given a highly provocative and imaginative formulation and promoted by his prophet Nathan of Gaza was the first to develop and broadcast epistolary accounts—an active propaganda with an equally active counter-effort—in addition to those that appeared in the popular press, biographical narratives, and in the form of engravings. The portraits of Zvi and Nathan, taken from life, are the first we have of Jewish messiahs. Begun and first perceived as a response to a stultified organizational structure, the contemporary rabbinate, the following changed its character after Nathan began to illumine the depths of Zvi’s passionate and labile personality and to map it on to the cosmos as the drama of the world savior. It exploded when Zvi converted to Islam. Nathan provided that act with further meaning in a campaign which drew its strength from the mystery of the annulment of one law as a new age dawned from an antinomian, paradoxical theology amalgamating antitheses.

    A second messiah followed: Barukhia Russo/Osman Baba. The “Second” seems to have extended the antinomian theme, perhaps adding to the Islamic conversion one to Christianity in Catholic Europe, expanding the depths of social hiddenness of the group of his followers and enshrining its duplicitous identity. These themes had been an integral element of the life of Jews who had converted to Christianity and ultimately fled—packing a decidedly mixed religious experience into their portmanteaus—to the Netherlands, to Germany, to England, to the north of the Ottoman Empire, Walachia, Moldavia, the Ukraine, Galicia, Podolia. The third messiah in this lineage, Jacob Joseph Frank, made quite an impression on Jewish historiography if not history, commencing with his experiences with the remainder of the following of Zvi in Izmir and continuing in the south Polish region. Some historians find the roots of modern Jewish movements—including the Enlightenment, Reform Judaism, and Hasidism—lying quite close to Frank and Frankists. Frank’s opposition to rabbinic culture and his attachment to mystic ideas such as the resolution of opposites and the liberation of sexual identity, as well as his continuation of this lineage’s theology of duplicitous conversion, have led to his anathematization in Jewish circles. The participation of his disciples in two public disputes—against rabbinites—among other documents, including excommunications, divorce trials, public propaganda and his own and his daughter’s portraits and the massive remains of Frank’s dicta, delivered to his inner circle over thirty odd years—are but a few indications of the richness of the constituents of this event (actually two events, since his daughter became the messiah—the only clear case of a female Jewish messiah—upon her father’s death).

    In the same period and geography, the long chain of messiahs in the movement of Hasidism began to emerge. The personality around whom the movement gathered itself was Israel ben Eliezer, a folk/spiritual doctor who sought to lighten the burdens of many of his followers from the sufferings of their ignorance, their hard labor, and their penury through preaching joy and an approach to belief and practice that provided more immediate, more emotional involvement. At the same time, the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov [“The Good Practitioner”/ “The Possessor of the Power of the Name (of God),” as he was known] accorded with the ideas that had come from Luria, Vital, and Safed, so that his more intellectually-oriented colleagues and followers found familiar themes having to do with a close association with the divine along with a more popular approach to their dissemination on which to build. Thus, several messiahs followed the path laid out by the Besht. Pre-eminent among them was his great-grandson, R. Nachman of Bratslav. Where the main accounts of the life of the Besht were, like the hagiography of Luria, told and then written by his followers, the most interesting of those of R. Nachman were his own work, including the famous three-fold tales and his teachings. His biography, written by his loving disciple R. Nathan Sternharz is a moving work that provides an intimate opening on to R. Nahman’s personality. In his tales, R. Nahman wove the history and theology of the redemption of the broken cosmos and its redeemer together with his own biography as a redeemer into simple folktales and achieved unparalleled literary splendors.

    The most recent of the messiahs of Hasidism, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, lately of Crown Heights, New York, in his personality and in his teachings, achieved an enormous growth in his following and in its political influence, stirring not a little jealousy and disgruntlement among other Judaisms and their leaders. His teachings, especially his discussions and sermons, continue a tradition arising from the earliest generation of hasidic leaders following the Besht, the Lubavitch, or Chabad rabbinate. The Rebbe, as he is known, began his messiahship in the late years of his life, and belief in his resurrection is widespread among his followers, the hasidim of Lubavitch. The miracle tales themselves—which continue to appear anew—serve to promote his teachings through a focus on his other-worldly perception, while restating a major theme of his messiahship, the inculcation of an emotive and attainable religiosity among those who may, in one way or another, come to think of themselves as separated from such a life and its ways. His death has left his movement without a replacement, though the movement continues to expand through the work of its emissaries. The messiahship of the Rebbe was as much, if not more, a product of the need Lubavitch Hasidim felt to keep him and their movement alive as it was of his own desire. The portrait of the Rebbe plays an important part in both the home and public practices of his followers.

    In many ways, the unhappy political and social situations of those who have participated in messiah events have undergone two massive and successive shocks from which the accounts and events of new Jewish messiahs may not emerge again. The destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust has obliterated for many the possibility of a belief in a Redeemer and Redemption. At the same time, the rise of the secular Jewish State of Israel and the vast amelioration of Jewish life in the New World and in Israel seems to many Jews to have opened the way to a happier human and Jewish existence. An examination of the long and separate history of the Jewish messiahs of Yemen leads to a similar conclusion.

    Messiah events have largely ceased; accounts continue to flourish along with practices associated with earlier messiahs. Taken together, both developments point to a dissolution of the tensions integral to the problems of associated Jewish identity formations and to a dissolution of the Jewish messiah.

    (The above is a condensation with significant alterations of the author’s The Jewish Messiahs (Oxford University Press, 2001).